Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Armsbearing by the Clergy in the History of the Canon Law of the Episcopal Church in the United States

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Armsbearing by the Clergy in the History of the Canon Law of the Episcopal Church in the United States

Article excerpt

Up to the American Revolution, the Church of England on the North American side of the Atlantic was governed by fundamentally the same canon law as in the Mother Country. One crucial difference was the absence of bishops in the colonies, which all fell under the jurisdiction of the bishop of London. Ordinands aspirant therefore had to make the long and difficult voyages to and from England. Furthermore, colonial vestries were much stronger than in England and little inclined to tolerate practices common there, such as pluralism. Otherwise the law was in nearly all other respects the same.

On the matter of armsbearing by the clergy, the Latin Church essentially forbade it until the twelfth century. (The Greek tradition believes it has always forbidden it.) For complex reasons having to do with both the Crusades and the "crisis of Church and State" of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, from 1129 onward the papacy authorized the creation of a series of militaryreligious orders like the Templars and the Teutonic Knights; and during the pontificate of Alexander III (1159-81), under whom the five major Iberian military orders received papal approbation, the crucial principle also came to be accepted that, in accordance with the right in natural and Roman law to repel violence with violence (vim vi repellere), the clergy could employ violence, but for defensive purposes only. By the thirteenth century, this novelty came to be registered in diocesan and provincial legislation throughout the Latin Church.1 In England, a series of statutes to this effect (allowing defensive but prohibiting offensive arms) was enacted between 1240 and 1268, culminating in a legatine council in that year presided over by Cardinal Ottobono (the future short-lived Pope Adrian V of 1276), and again in supplementary statutes for the Diocese of London sometime in the 1280s.2 Since then, however, this matter has effectively never again been the subject of direct legislation at any level in the later history of the Church in England nor, after the introduction of Reformation and the break with Rome in the 1530s, the subsequent history of the Church of England.3 Yet for intricate reasons which I have sought to untangle elsewhere, the myth later developed (probably originating with the highly influential Codex juris canonici anglicani [1713] of Bishop Edmund Gibson [1669-1748]) that the Church in and of England has always forbidden clerical armsbearing, a myth so powerful that it prompted the learned modern editors of the legislation of the medieval English Church, F. M. Powiekę and Christopher Cheney, to err in their understanding of what happened in 1268, where the legatine council undoubtedly forbade only arms of aggression.4 It is significant that when a sixteenpage pamphlet was published anonymously in Bath in 1798 on the clergy and military service, the author, a country curate, cited not a single ecclesiastical law forbidding military service or armsbearing, but only alluded vaguely to "the Laws and customs of this Kingdom" and, in a postscript, thanked the Lord Bishops for their "disapprobation" of such "improper" behavior.5

It is therefore revealing to consider the fate of colonial Anglican clergymen in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina who before or during the revolution are known to have taken up arms.6 Jonathan Boucher was rector of Queen Anne's Parish in Prince George's County, Maryland, in the early 1770s. So outspoken a royalist was he that he kept loaded pistols in his pulpit and on one occasion threatened to blow out the brains of the leader of two hundred men who occupied his church to prevent him from preaching. In September 1775 he left for England, received a rectorship in Surrey, and in the 1790s published an account of his travails/ During the war, four and possibly five of the 122 incumbent Anglican clergy in Virginia took up arms. It is not clear whether Adam Smith, rector of Botecourt Parish, acted as a combatant as well as a chaplain. …

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